The other day, I had a Twitter exchange with Comrade Sperber about George Orwell (who Sperber personally is not too keen on or interested in) where I equated Eric Blair’s notoriety with Hitler. Many people respond by seeing that claim as an absurd hyperbole but I see it otherwise, instead I think Orwell has plenty in common with Herr Schicklgruber.
I wanted to elaborate on this a little bit because I think this is a rich ground to be harvested.
Primary to this analysis is the acknowledgment that the historic personage of Eric Blair, who died in 1950, and George Orwell, an immortal bibliographic creation of the Western Cold War espionage project, are separate entities. How much overlap of intention between Blair and Orwell can be claimed is ancillary to these proceedings because such counterfactuals regarding his mortality fly in the face of the record, in particular that Blair was a snitch for the red squad and Orwell was a pillar of the anti-Communist edifice that held aloft the justification for the Cold War.
Blair published his (in)famous memoir about the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, in 1938. Owing to the necessities of the moment and this little brouhaha called World War II, where the British Empire found itself allied with the Soviet Union in opposition to the Axis Powers, the volume was quickly brushed aside and reportedly only sold 1,500 copies until after the war. Posthumously the book was rediscovered and found a new lease on life, owing in part to an influential new Preface added by Columbia University literary don/American liberal public intellectual Lionel Trilling.
In the twelve years following his publication of Homage, Orwell became a left-ish advocate of the British Empire’s potential to be progressive force for good in the world by opposing fascism alongside the other Western democracies.
Or at least that’s the popular version of events.
The problem is that the Soviet Union had been trying to build that international alliance with the Western democracies to oppose fascism for years only to be rebuffed consistently. Instead, these Western leaders Orwell became bedfellows with, such as Winston Churchill, aspired to ally with Germany to attack Russia! This popular notion of the final days before World War II has significant divergence from what actually happened and, most notably, places the blame for the war on the USSR rather than the Western democracies and their fascist-appeasing governments.
In this way, Orwell created what Hitler called the Big Lie in Mein Kampf. The dictator claimed that people are very strange when it comes to bearing false witness. If you tell them a little white lie (“My Jewish landlord is cheating me on the rent”), there will be a heightened level of incredulity. But when you make an outrageous, giant claim (“All Jewish landlords in Germany and Austria are conspiring to cheat their Gentile tenants”), the public’s credulity is readily accessed by the liar.
Homage to Catalonia, alongside 1984 and Animal Farm, forms a loose Cold War Liberal trilogy of anti-Communism that has been shaping (and I would argue hindering) the strategic thinking of the American Left for over seven decades. Absolutely everyone to the left of the Democratic Party, from social democrats like Irving Howe to anarchists like Noam Chomsky, cite Orwell as reason why the Communist Party USA was not to be trusted.
Meanwhile, the CPUSA, flaws and all, had the best damned organizers in their ranks. When the shoe leather hit the pavement on the protest line, the CPUSA could make the numbers turn out and get the win while other groupings couldn’t. I’m sorry but it is just a simple fact, Trotskyists, Socialists, and anarchists just didn’t reach the level of accomplishment the CPUSA was able to (and notably, it was Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party that raised serious opposition to Japanese internment while the CPUSA was mute).
Orwell’s trilogy articulated a big whopper of a lie that we all are familiar with, that the worldwide Communist movement was a conspiratorial network of groups that would engage in subterfuge, espionage, and treachery on behalf of the Soviet Union and at the expense of the individual states from whence these parties came. Unlike any other political party in a given country, Communists were members of a unique, distinctly untrustworthy project spanning the globe that intended to destroy liberal democracy. Communists are not to be trusted and alliances with them is outright dangerous. (The fact that the Communist Party USA in reality is a fairly conservative, milquetoast organization that has been advocating voting for the Democrats for decades now is the truly Orwellian dash of humor in all this.)
In a January 1957 Fabian Society tract, Kingsley Amis wrote for that social democratic think tank:
What I have said is at any rate strikingly different from the account given by Orwell in his long series of denunciations of the British intellectual, which culminated, of course, in Nineteen Eighty-Four. I take this as a political pamphlet with a warning about totalitarianism addressed to the intelligentsia. Orwell was in fact warning the late Forties of something that had already been averted in the late Thirties…
He was a sick man; he had also completed his long-impending development into a hysterical neurotic with a monomania about the depravity of British intellectuals… I doubt if he ever recovered from the experience, brilliantly retailed in his Homage to Catalonia, of seeing how Communists can treat their allies when ‘necessity’ demands. After that he must concentrate on warning, on denouncing, on stopping the rot in Britain… He was the man above all others who was qualified to become the candid friend the Labour party needed so much in the years after 1945.
But what he did was to becomes a right-wing propagandist by negation, or at any rate a supremely powerful – though unconscious – advocate of political quietism.
While Orwell’s anti-Communism has been a hindrance on developments in America, it has been a catastrophe for the Global South. In the period spanning 1945-1991, millions of people in the postcolonial world struggled to organize their societies in a way that was disconnected from the North’s capitalist system, which would have of course raised expenses for Northern corporations. But one merely had to tar these efforts with the dread Red label in order for both conservatives and liberals to support military interventions in everywhere from Korea to Indonesia to Vietnam. Communism as a political current within the crowds might very well have been nothing but a peripheral presence, if not an annoyance that everyone was ignoring.
It is impossible to calculate the number of people, falsely labelled as Communists during the Cold War, who were systematically murdered in the name of preferential treatment for American corporations. Indeed, hindering such calculus is part of the very propaganda system that continues to maintain American dominance of the world economy.
Aíme Césaire, the poet and statesman from Martinique who mentored Frantz Fanon as a youth, wrote in his 1950 Discourse on Colonialism:
And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss…
Before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples…
Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century…what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself…it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “c**lies” of India, and the “n*****s” of Africa.
Césaire argued fascism was blowback. Mussolini, Hitler, and all the rest were the vanguard of colonialism that was trying to conquer the Global North rather than South. (For more detailed analysis of this claim, consider the monograph Hitler’s American Model by James Whitman, which demonstrates how indebted the Reich was to the US settler colonial policies towards the Indigenous and African Americans.)
Orwell’s Cold War Trilogy is a major pillar of continued anti-Communist brutality that convinces all-important liberal opinion to endorse and support the violence. (The fact that China, Laos, Cambodia, and now apparently Cuba and North Korea have become the states that are the most efficient managers of capitalism, hence why all the manufacturing jobs are off-shored to them, is yet another Orwellian irony.) While reactionaries that vote Republican behave as to be expected, it is Democratic Party voters that have been the deciding factor in major rightward social policy developments over the past 30 years, starting with Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA and destruction of Welfare to Obama’s proliferation of AFRICOM, drone warfare, and fracking.
This is the final way that Orwell and Hitler overlap. Both effect a rightward movement within the polis, the voting public. They redefined where the margins are located in a fundamental way that benefits the designs of imperialism and colonialism. Their methods might diverge but their outcomes do not. Hitler’s project began as an assault on the Soviet Union in order to return it to the domination of Western European finance capital and it only became unpopular because he dared to assault already-existing outposts, namely Poland. Orwell was nowhere near as connected to British finance capital but his antagonism towards Communists was so radically paranoid that it hindered a peace movement as nuclear proliferation and NATO hegemony were hatched and implemented, securing the position of newborn American global imperial domination for the past seven decades.
Oh, yeah, and they both also had mustaches.